Sunday, February 20, 2011

Type Hard, Type Fast



First, I want to thank everyone for the launch of my new book last week. I spent most of Sunday chatting up the book in social media. A "virtual book tour" so to speak. Then I sort of watched to see what would happen. It's only been one week and one book, but the results have exceeded my expectations. 

And I have more of this material in my pipeline. A lot more. Because as I mentioned last week, I love the old pulp days when writers really wrote, fast, because they had to.

Fast does not mean hack work (it can, of course, but not necessarily). I'm not discussing the editing process, either. Concentrated effort is what I'm talking about. I contend that many young writers would actually improve their craft –– and chances of getting published –– if they would write faster, especially at the beginning of their learning curve.

First, a few facts. Some of the best novels of the past century were produced at a rapid clip by authors who found writing time each day, and went at their task with singular resolution:

-- William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks, writing from midnight to 4 a.m., then sending it off to the publisher without changing a word.

-- Ernest Hemingway wrote what some consider his best novel, The Sun Also Rises, also in six weeks, part of it in Madrid, and the last of it in Paris, in 1925.

-- John D. MacDonald is now hailed as one of the best writers of the 50s and 60s. Within one stunning stretch (1953-1954) he brought out seven novels, at least two of them – The Neon Jungle and Cancel All Our Vows – brilliant (the others were merely splendid). Over the course of the decade he wrote many more excellent and bestselling novels, including the classic The End of the Night, which some mention in the same breath as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Also Cry Hard, Cry Fast, which is the basis for the title of this blog entry.

So prolific was MacDonald that he was needled by a fellow writer who, over martinis, sniffed that John should slow down, ignore “paperback drivel” and get to “a real novel.” John sniffed back that in 30 days he could write a novel that would be published in hardback, serialized in the magazines, selected by a book club and turned into a movie. The other writer laughed and bet him $50 that he couldn’t.

John went home and, in a month, wrote The Executioners. It was published in hardback by Simon & Schuster, serialized in a magazine, selected by a book club, and turned into the movie Cape Fear. Twice.

--Ray Bradbury famously wrote his classic Fahrenheit 451 in nine days, on a rented typewriter. “I had a newborn child at home,” he recalls, “and the house was loud with her cries of exaltation at being alive. I had no money for an office, and while wandering around UCLA I heard typing from the basement of Powell Library. I went to investigate and found a room with 12 typewriters that could be rented for 10 cents a half hour. So, exhilarated, I got a bag of dimes and settled into the room, and in nine days I spent $9.80 and wrote my story; in other words, it was a dime novel.”

I’ve counseled many writers at conferences who have come with a single manuscript yet haven’t got another project going. I tell them, “That’s wonderful. You’ve written a novel. That’s a great accomplishment. Now, get to work on the next one. And as you’re writing that next one, be developing an idea for the project after that.”

You see, publishers and agents are not looking for a book. They are looking for solid, dependable writers. They invest in careers. They want to know you can do this over and over again.

The best advice I ever got as a young writer was to write a quota of words on a regular basis. I break my commitment into week-long segments (anticipating those days when I ride a bike into a tree or some such). I believe this discipline has made all the difference in my career. The testimony of so many other professional writers attests to its value.

One such testimonial comes from Isaac Asimov, author/editor of 500+ books. He was once asked what he would do if were told he had only six months to live.

“Type faster,” he said.

26 comments:

  1. This post is perfectly timed for me. In January, for the first time ever, I set for myself a hard word count goal of 50K words. I psyched myself up for it in December and I pushed myself HARD--all month long, and I DID make the goal. It was a terrific confidence booster and taught me some things I never anticipated (like the fact that I enjoyed seat of the pants writing).

    Then enter February. I intentionally dropped my word count goal to 8400 for the month, knowing, rightly, that I could not keep up that 50K pace.

    However I fear I have set my goal too low because with my back NOT against the wall, it has allowed a crisis of confidence to creep in. In part owing to the fact that I came upon a section of my story for which I had done no research and that research is proving a bit hard to gather.

    I eased up on my concentration and strength of will this month and the results have been less than stellar.

    Of course I do need to allow for "life happenings" but my overall goal for this year is 3 first draft (not edited, not revised, just rough drafts) manuscripts. In order to make that goal, I have to be steady all year and focused.

    So I will think very carefully when setting my March writing goals. It can't be too high, but it can't be too low either.

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  2. Great post, Jim. While I certainly don't rank myself anywhere near those authors, I did recently discover a renewed appreciation for deadlines. Without one, I wrote 45,000 words in roughly six months. The remaining 56,000 words of the book I churned out in six weeks, when I was abruptly issued a deadline.

    Unlike Faulkner, however, I'll be changing a lot of those words...still, it's nice to have a draft done, albeit a rough one.

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  3. Nice post, Jim. There used to be an old saying: Strike while the iron is hot. I think this is true for writing as well: Write while the idea is hot. Get it out and on paper as fast as you can. There's always time for rewriting later.

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  4. BK, good show. Part of this is trial and error to see where you feel best. As a rule of thumb I advocate finding a weekly goal you can comfortably meet, then up it by 10%.

    And as for "crises of confidence" creeping in, that's quite common, for all writers. Stephen King said he writes as much as he does to keep ahead of the "waves of doubt.'

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  5. Michelle! Prodigious. Way to go. Yes, it's a great feeling to have that draft done. And with all due respect to Faulkner, I'm not sure he could write a thriller.

    And that's right on, Joe. Get those words down in the heat of passion. Once you get going, you'll have to stoke that fire and even write when you're cold. But the writing itself gives momentum.

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  6. It's nice to hear someone advocating writing fast. I would never have written one novel, let along three, if I had never been introduced to National Novel Writing Month, which many writers seem to pour scorn over. I may have produced some of worst writing in that time, but I've also produced some of my best.

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  7. Right on, Elenya. I think sometimes we have to give ourselves permission to be bad in order to produce what's good.

    I became a believer in NaNoWriMo last year. I wrote about that here and here.

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  8. I find it easier to write when I write fast rather than dragging it out. When I'm writing fast the story stays fresh in my head, but if I put it aside and come back I always have to remember what I was trying to accomplish. Fast writing saves time.

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  9. I wish I'd had the smarts to write without so much concern for what I was writing years ago. I think new writers get caught up in some kind of brain lock that their first novel has to be publishable. Then they edit it to death and submit to contests and listen to some critics that dont' know what they are talking about. I did all that and now I look back and think, heck, I could've had about 15 books written by now if I hadn't been so uptight about the whole process.

    Type Hard, Type Fast and Asimov's, Type Faster are thoughts I wished I put into place a long time ago.

    But as the saying goes, There's no time like the present. I better get going. Thanks Jim! Oh, and I love the Ray Bradbury story about the basement of the Powell Library. How cool is that? Wish I could join you for the workshop in June but I don't think I'll be able to make it. What can always hope.:) Make sure to tell that audience about the content of this post. It will help many if they will listen. Blessings on that endeavor.

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  10. Great post. I was putting off developing another story in foavor of finishing off my current WIP, but after this reading your thoughts in this post I'm going to rethink that strategy.

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  11. Good point, Timothy, about saving time and staying in the story.

    Jillian, good thoughts. Will miss you in LA, but I know you'll be writing.

    Yes, John. As Joe said, strike while the iron is hot.

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  12. Hi, James! I'm a friend of Jeanette Littleton and contributor to Extraordinary Answers to Prayers. My hubby is pushing me to try my hand at epublishing. Do you have any tips for me? I don't have any published novels right now. I'm currently revising a manuscript that Terry Burns is considering representing. He wants to see the manuscript again after revisions. In the meantime, my husband thinks I should write another book and epublish it - even if under a psuedonym just to see how it goes. What are your thoughts and advice?

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  13. Linnette, I would read this advice and do some reading at Joe Konrath's blog. Then be prepared to hire a good cover designer (mine is here) and be sure to have someone who knows how to convert the files do it for you.

    I'm not sure putting an ebook out there to "see how it goes" is the best strategy. Think long term and building up a readership from the start.

    Good luck.

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  14. What a great post. I get a little nervous when I hear of writers who spent 10 years on a novel. It makes me think mine can't be good enough. But that's not true. I loved in PLOT & STRUCTURE how you debunked The Big Lie. My favorite piece of advice ever received was "First get it written, then get it right."

    Hearty congratulations on the new book!

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  15. Julie, I appreciate that nice comment. And just hearing "10 years" makes me shudder.

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  16. Jillian, you cracked me up because when you used the phrase "uptight" I knew right away you'd described me exactly while working on my first manuscript.

    Julie--I didn't take 10 years to write my first manuscript, but it did take me 6--due to that business of being uptight that Jillian mentioned.

    Everybody has to write to their own pace, but I now realize there was just no point to letting that manuscript drag out for six years. Because you know what? I STILL want to revise it. And if I'm going to revise a story to death, I might as well write it faster the first time.

    I think that's why I'm uptight in a new way this year 8-) in the sense of demanding of myself three rough draft manuscripts. I need to break that previous rut I fell into. (Are you all detecting that all or nothing personality yet?) LOL!

    I can't do anything about the past, but I can move forward and try a different approach. After all, I'm not the same writer I was when I started 6 years ago, even if I do only have one manuscript to show for it.

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  17. This is how I work: hard, fast, and with the pressure of little time and three jobs.
    I sometimes hope that, when my books are sold, I only have two jobs.

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  18. Thanks for this great Monday morning inspiration. I did take 10 years to write my first novel, mostly because I refused to accept that I was a writer. I was just someone who wrote. Ten years for the first 50K words of that book, six months for the second 50K words. That was my turning point. I don't write every day, but when a story grabs hold of me, I can--and do--crank out a finished draft in a few months. Still, I'd like to be faster. My goal has always been to draft 4 books per year.

    I do find that the faster I write the book, the less revision the manuscript requires. That alone is a major bonus!

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  19. I stick to a daily quota of five pages (or more) a day or 25 pages a week when I'm doing the creative part of writing a book. I wish I could write for hours but then I'd be in therapy for neck and hand problems. This is my limit, with the rest of the day spent on blogs, promo, etc. Self-discipline is the key to a consistent career. It's not so much the pace, although prolific writers are desired by editors and readers alike, but the steady performance.

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  20. Great advice,James. When I finally start with my novels I generally try to do the same as I have to get the words down whilst they are still burning in my brain.

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  21. I too like it when I'm focused on working on my novel and writing not so much from my mind but from my heart. It's like something else other than I am writing. NaNoWriMo is a fantastic way to go. Every year I write the 50 k and spend the next several months editing. I love it!

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  22. I'm happy I found you in the twitterverse. :-) Great post. As I was reading, I kept thinking of the Asimov quote you ended with - hoping it would be there. It's one of my faves: "If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I’d type a little faster."
    Isaac Asimov Thanks again!

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  23. I'm happy I found you in the twitterverse. :-) Great post. As I was reading, I kept thinking of the Asimov quote you ended with - hoping it would be there. It's one of my faves: "If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I’d type a little faster."
    Isaac Asimov Thanks again!

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  24. Great pep talk for NaNoWriMo 2013.

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